TOPEKA, Kan. – The huge Kansas City, Kansas, waterslide on which a 10-year-old boy died was built in a state known for its light regulation of amusement park rides, and the company lobbied legislators to help ensure that it remained responsible for its own inspections.
Kansas mandates annual inspections of permanent amusement park rides but allows private inspectors to do the checks, rather than requiring a state inspection. The state does only random audits of operators’ records, and there are no additional local safety regulations for the Schlitterbahn Waterpark in Kansas City.
Before Kansas considered imposing inspection requirements for amusement rides in 2008, a Schlitterbahn lobbyist urged state lawmakers to allow large parks to handle their own inspections. The resulting Kansas law and regulations contain provisions that the author of an older and tougher Florida law called “absurd.”
States’ regulations of waterslides and other amusement rides are facing scrutiny following the death Sunday of Caleb Thomas Schwab on the 168-foot “Verruckt” at the Schlitterbahn park. He was the son of state Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican.
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“I would assume and hope that the Legislature would spend significant time in looking at the issue, and we will, as an administration,” Republican Gov. Sam Brownback told reporters Friday. “I think that all needs to be looked at now in light of this tragedy.”
Authorities have not said exactly how the accident occurred. Schlitterbahn has said Verruckt – German for “insane” – will remain closed for the rest of the season.
Permanent rides in Kansas must be “self-inspected” annually by a qualified inspector, with the state conducting random audits of the resulting inspection records. A document released this week by the state Department of Labor showed all of Schlitterbahn’s rides passed private inspections on June 7.
The company’s other parks are in Texas, which also requires annual inspections by insurance company inspectors.
Schlitterbahn spokeswoman Winter Prosapio declined to comment on questions related to the accident in Kansas City or the regulation of the park.
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The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission said there have been four fatalities on waterslides since 2010, not including the one in Kansas.
David Mandt, a spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said the trade group estimates than 85 million people safely visit water parks each year, making an accident like the one in Kansas City “extremely rare.”
“We go to great lengths to ensure the safety of our guests,” Mandt said in an email to The Associated Press.
Brownback told reporters that he and his youngest son rode the Verruckt slide when it opened in 2014, and riders were weighed both at the bottom of its tower and at the top because the concern was ensuring that each raft had the proper amount of weight – between 400 pounds and 550 pounds -ahead of its long drop.
The regulation of permanent amusement park rides is left to the states, and it’s inconsistent.
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Ken Martin, a Richmond, Virginia-based amusement park safety consultant, said New Jersey is the “No. 1” state for ride safety, in part because its program includes enforcement and fines, and Pennsylvania is a “close second.”
According to the federal commission, New Jersey’s program has as an engineering staff that reviews rides, as well as licensed field inspectors. Pennsylvania requires state-certified inspections when a permanent ride is set up and then “every 30 days thereafter.” The state also performs unannounced quality assurance inspections.
Among the states with no state oversight are Mississippi, Alabama, Nevada, South Dakota and Utah, according to the amusement park association.
Martin said Texas is “barely” better than Kansas about regulating amusement rides.
“As far as Kansas having a reputation in the industry, they’re known for having little to no regulations,” Martin said. “Been that way for years.”
Before 2009 – the same year Schlitterbahn opened its Kansas City park – Kansas had no state inspection requirements. The idea faced opposition from rural legislators worried about shutting down rides at county fairs and local festivals, said state Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican who first pushed for new rules in the late 1990s.
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Kansas legislators approved the inspection law in 2008, after a study committee recommended it. The panel’s official report, drafted after an October 2007 hearing, said a Schlitterbahn lobbyist saw “no problem” with lawmakers considering a requirement but added, “the company would like a ‘Disney exception”‘ for large parks, allowing “company inspection, in conjunction with the state.”
The lobbyist, Mike Hutfles, did not return telephone messages seeking comment, and Prosapio declined comment.
Before the Verruckt slide opened in 2014, Schlitterbahn head designer John Schooley told CNN, “Our park in Kansas City doesn’t have a height restriction so we decided to put it right here.”
Schlitterbahn hopes to build a new park in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but it won’t replicate the Verruckt there, because building heights are restricted at its chosen site.
The Kansas law allows local officials to impose safety requirements, but Wyandotte County only checks rides when they’re constructed to see whether building codes have been followed.
Local government spokesman Mike Taylor said it wouldn’t be cost-effective to keep a highly trained inspector on staff or retainer because of a single park.
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“It would make more sense for that to be based at the State level,” Taylor said in an email.
But Brad Burke, the Kansas Department of Labor’s deputy secretary and chief counsel, said the agency has the authority only to conduct audits of records.
Kansas parks are required to keep their records only for a year. Former Florida Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, a Democrat who wrote his state’s older and tougher law, said such a lax record-keeping requirement is “absurd.”
The Kansas law calls for annual “non-destructive testing” of rides, with ultrasound, radiography or other technology. Burke said the definition also allows visual inspections, and the general practice is to see that a ride operator does the testing recommended in the manufacturer’s manual.
“I’ve seen some manuals where they say the only testing we recommend is that park employees ride the ride the morning of operations, prior to allowing the public to operate,” Burke said. “Some of them require visual inspection.”
In a letter Thursday, a department official told the Schlitterbahn park’s general manager that a post-accident records audit confirmed that non-destructive testing “is not required by the manufacturer of each ride.” The letter said Schlitterbahn met all regulatory requirements.
Geller called relying on visual inspections “ridiculous,” saying stresses on metal and even cracks aren’t caught that way, particularly if a ride is painted over.
In Kansas, a park must shut down a ride if there is a serious injury and have it inspected again. The park also must report the incident to the ride’s manufacturer – but not the state.
The Department of Labor has 18 inspectors who do record audits for rides at more than 110 fair, festival, carnival and amusement park sites, but they also have other, larger workplace inspection duties.
“We are constrained by the Constitution, as far as search and seizure,” Burke said. “We can’t just force our way into places unless we have authority to do it – which is a good thing.”